It’s difficult enough to know that your child is seriously ill. But with mental illness, a parent has to deal with much more than the illness itself. There can be personal shame about having a family that is not “normal.” There is the wish to react in the "right way," without having the vaguest idea what that "right way" is.
Karen Meadows has walked in those shoes. For six years, starting when her daughter Sadie was 12 years old, she searched for the right doctor, the right diagnosis, the right treatment, the best residential treatment options, the best aftercare, the best… everything. Often, she felt her search had no guideposts in this new, unfamiliar world.
Karen, her husband Dennis, and Sadie experienced the worst. Despite Karen’s and Dennis’ heroic efforts to do what they thought was right, and Sadie immersing herself in treatments as best she could, Sadie died by suicide at age 18.
Karen has thought long and hard about what she wishes she had known at the time. She has confronted mistakes she now thinks she made. She has immersed herself in learning about depression and suicide, digging out many helpful, resources she did not know that she could have used.
Here, she shares her hard-won insights and knowledge.
Accept your child's diagnosis.
For many parents, accepting that your child has a mental illness is hard. There is a great wish to avoid and deny. On the good days, it is easy to believe the child has overcome the challenges and is okay.
The problem is that shame and guilt can get in the way of getting the right help. Unless acknowledged, these personal feelings can limit your ability to reach out and maximize the help you can get for your child and for yourself.
Get a good diagnosis and request it be re-evaluated periodically as your child grows up.
Mental illness may evolve as your child grows. Don't assume that the first diagnosis remains the most accurate one. New symptoms that emerge over time may indicate a different diagnosis and treatment.
(I heartily endorse this recommendation. Parents can request periodic re-assessments from their regular psychiatrist, or from another psychiatrist as a second opinion. In medicine, many times it is the last physician to see a patient who makes the correct diagnosis, and he or she may be regarded as a "genius." However, the full picture of the disease may emerge over time, so it is only then that the diagnosis becomes clear.)
Communicate with your child.
Let your child know you are aware of their struggles and want to listen and help. Listen without judgment. Show them that they are not alone and that together, you and your child can find the treatment they deserve.
(Sometimes, they will look relieved that you have noticed and brought this up. Sometimes, they will indicate they don’t want to talk, yet they now know it is alright for them to bring it up another time.)
Start a conversation with your child about suicide.
Ask them if the thought has ever crossed their minds. Ask them if it is often on their minds. Ask them if they have a method they are contemplating. Make sure your child has the number of the national suicide hotline to call if they do not want to tell you directly. It is: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
(There is no danger of planting the thought of suicide in someone's mind if it is not already there. Asking these questions in an objective way opens the door for your child to tell you something they might otherwise keep to themselves. And, importantly, if there are any guns in the house, get rid of them.)
Get the right professional help.
It's confusing out there, with multiple types of talk therapy and medications. Having a network that can assist you as you try and sort these things out is helpful. Find a therapist your child is comfortable with.
Connect to local and national groups that may have resources to help you.
You can find and contact excellent resources for both support and information. These include the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health.
Take care of yourself and other family members
Dealing with a child who struggles with mental health issues is hard. You can best help your child if you are not over-stressed and exhausted. Everyone in the family needs to be taken care of. You have to support each other.
Books can provide insight.
There are many books: fiction and non-fiction, which give a true picture of the experience of depression for the affected person and the family.
Ordinary People is a book that portrays well the experience of depression for the teenager, his parents, and the doctor treating him.
As a psychiatrist, I have had many experiences with people who are in an episode of deep depression, and know they feel at the bottom of a black pit with no way to ever climb out. And I also know that after treatment, they can look back at those feelings as having been very real, but thankfully in the past. In my novel, The End of Miracles, I use fiction to tell a story that pulls the reader up close to understand one woman’s tragic path into depression and back.
In Searching for Normal: The Story of a Girl Gone Too Soon, Karen Meadows has written a searing, brutally honest book, filled with her real experiences as a parent and her recommendations for others. Importantly, it includes not only her own story but also the writings and poetry of her daughter, Sadie. These show the reader Sadie’s most intimate—and often unshared—feelings. Sadie sometimes lived in a kind of parallel universe, and her sense of herself was not always the same as Karen’s perceptions of her at the exact same time.
It is difficult for a parent (or a psychiatrist) to truly know the human being in their care, and how best to help. The techniques shared here, from one parent to another, offer helpful guidelines in the search for a path to follow.